Julie Vickery ponders how knowledge of the three stages of the spiritual life can help us retain the joyful hope of Easter in all seasons.
"I am the way, the truth and the life." (John 14:6)
With the renewal of our Baptismal vows still fresh in our minds and the Easter Season nearing its close, we have arrived at an ideal time to consider the Church's ancient teaching on the three stages of the spiritual life. Ever since Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) developed his foundational teaching on the three stages (or ways), numerous saints, mystics, and holy men and women have contributed their insights to the Catholic understanding of the spiritual journey that brings joy in this world and life eternal in the next.
The outline below shows the various characteristics and phases (or steps) of the three stages. The purpose of this outline is to encourage reflection that will lead the seeker to search for answers from the masters of the spiritual life, such as: Ss. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Catherine of Siena. More recently, the lives of Blessed Concepcion de Armida ("Conchita") and Ss. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and Mother Teresa of Calcutta are models of the holiness to which all are called.
This image of Saint Benedicta of the Cross, painted on a school wall in Germany, is a fitting portrayal of her prayerful journey from atheist to martyr.
Finally, it is important to stress here that no one should travel the spiritual way alone, as the road to eternal life is narrow and few find it (Matthew 7: 13-14). An experienced and knowledgeable guide is a must. Finding such a person can be a frustrating and, often, futile task. Mercifully, Catholics are blessed with the Community of Saints. With prayer and persistence, the right heavenly guide will most certainly be found — indeed, many believe it is the saint who finds the seeker.
"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you." (Matthew 7:7)
The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life
Introduction: Every spiritual journey begins with a "yes" to God's call for a love relationship. Known as "awakening," this positive response is the first step on the road to holiness.
First Stage: PURGATION
- New life in Christ conflicts with old habits, human weaknesses and inclinations toward sin (concupiscence)
- Time of emotional upheaval
- Longing for forgiveness and fear of falling back are ever-present
- Frequent Confession and self-knowledge are vital aids
1st Phase: Moral Integration:
- Old ways replaced with sincere prayer, aspirations, holy reading, fellowship
- Growth and change underlie anxiety and uncertainty
- Relationships suffer
- Frequent backslides and returns to former life are common
2nd Phase: Faith and Trust Mature
- Anxiety lessens/defenses lower
- Transcendence seems a real possibility
- Prayer shifts from monologue to dialogue; from desire to control God's response to trust in His providence
1st Spiritual Darkness
Second Stage: ILLUMINATION
- Strong awareness God is the Light that illuminates the spiritual life
- Keen mindfulness of Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist
- Scripture and lives of the saints provide spiritual sustenance
- Devotion to Mother of God deepens. Mary seen as spiritual mother
1st Phase: Affective Prayer
- Zeal, gratitude and love of neighbor flow from desire to do all for God
- Desire for the presence of God alone can lead to loss of relationships
- Spiritual pride, self-deception and self-righteousness ever-present pitfalls
2nd Phase Prayer of Quiet
- Stillness in God
- Family and social obligations become burdensome, but infused virtues make for cheerful fulfillment of obligations
Third Stage: UNION
- Dryness leads to faithful prayer in silent darkness and perseverance
- God reigns supreme in the hearts of those who reach the state of union
1st Phase: Simple Union/Dark Night of the Senses
- Simple contemplation
- Loss of all defenses
- Gifts of the Holy Spirit prompt virtuous actions—selfless love reflects pure love of God
2nd Phase: Full Union and Ecstasy/Dark Night of the Spirit
- Complete harmony of the individual with the Divine Being
- Seeker transformed into Christ as completely as possible in this life
5 Readings you may find helpful:
- Teresa of Avila. The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila By Herself
- Mother Teresa. Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta
- Garcia, Jaime. 15 Days of Prayer with Saint Augustine
- Guardini, Romano. Meditations on the Christ: Model of All Holiness
- Dubay, Thomas. Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer
Resolution: Church teaching tells us prayer is the watermark of the spiritual life. Determine a way to deepen your conversations with God (prayer) and make it a habit of everyday life.
Copyright 2021 Julie Vickery
Images: Copyright 2021 Julie Vickery, all rights reserved; Wikimedia Commons (2015), CC BY SA 4.0
About the Author
Julie Vickery is a wife and mother of two grown children. She has a Master of Arts degree in Sacred Theology and enjoys continuing her studies online. Other favorite pastimes include reading and writing nonfiction, gardening, walking and taking part in local and online inter-faith discussion groups.